THE small theaters and cafes that fill streets near the studios in NoHo don’t in any way bring Texas to mind, but if you head out a little further on Vineland -- a little deeper into the Valley -- the buildings flatten down and the landscape opens up, bringing the big sky into prominence. At the intersection of Vineland Avenue and Vanowen Street on the west side of Burbank airport, on a midsummer day, you can step out of your car, squint through the shimmering heat across the acres of nondescript sprawl toward Mt. Wilson and get a sort of “miles and miles of Texas” feeling.
And if that doesn’t make you want to polish up your belt buckle and increase the size of your hairdo, just follow your nose and step over to the Swinging Door, a tucked away cafe that’s staked a claim to the hearts and stomachs of barbecue lovers with its slow-smoked specialties, long-cooked over oak in a no-nonsense parking lot barbecue “pit” and served with superb sauces and sides in a friendly, sometimes haphazard frenzy of activity.
Opened in January by Michael Stephenson, who owns the huge gas station that dominates the intersection, Swinging Door is named as a salute to but is not affiliated with a landmark restaurant in Richmond, Texas, where Stephenson worked as a teenager and, in a proud professional moment, was elevated to pit master at a young age. Stephenson’s father built the 3,400-pound steel smoker set out behind the gas station garage, a contraption with two enormous cylinders on either side of a fire box. It’s designed, says Stephenson, so there’s no flame directly under the meats, resulting in authentic Texas-style ‘cue.
The neighborhood -- alerted by the fragrant columns of smoke rising from the parking lot -- has taken notice. Throughout the weekday afternoons and into the evenings, shift workers, cops, shirt-sleeved office guys and locals scouting for take-out line up at the counter to order barbecued brisket, baby back ribs, chicken, sausage sandwiches, an array of sides and a roster of specials that includes pork sandwiches and fried chicken.
Swinging Door’s menu pulls it all together in a sturdy, well-made food pyramid, with high-quality, slow-cooked smoked meats as the foundation on which are stacked essential elements: two superlative sauces, unique garlic-glazed rolls, a family of fine sides and a homey fruit dessert.
There are half a dozen tables in the small, narrow room that’s been cheekily decorated with wallpaper friezes of silhouetted cowboys ‘n’ cactus and comic “Wanted” posters. Another five or six are set out under a rickety awning to make a patio. Tin cups of peanuts in the shell are set out at each red-checked-oilcloth-covered table.
Throughout the day, big trays of cooked meat are carried in from the parking lot to a tiny open kitchen where counter folks ask what you want, then wield cutlery and carve to order. There’s a slapdash quality to the scene -- regulars have learned that you can specify chopped or sliced meat, regular or spicy sauce and they’ve also learned that if you’re eating later in the day you should phone ahead for popular items such as baby backs because when they’re gone, they’re gone.
If it’s rush time you’ll get a great lunch, but you won’t get a lot of information and will be left wondering why your chicken sandwich has spicy sauce and your tablemate’s brisket has mild, or why the place always seems to be “out of” smoked potatoes (they’re only made with advance request).
Any one of the five standard sandwiches (brisket, tri-tip, chicken, jalapeno sausage and Louisiana sausage) is a good place to start. Tri-tip or brisket, chopped or sliced according to your preference, is rich with smoke flavor and tenderer than you feel like you have any right to expect in such a modest spot, and the four-pepper spicy sauce is just fabulous -- dense, with a slow building heat that finishes with a clean, hot kick. Regular sauce is good too -- thick, not sweet, with good tomato-garlic flavor. Jalapeno sausages from Holmes Smokehouse in Richmond are delightful, with terrific snap and texture and plenty of spice.
Sandwiches are served on wonderful rolls that have been brushed with butter and garlic, then toasted. There’s enough garlic to stand up to the meat and sauce; you get different but always happy combinations of flavors with each bite.
Combo plates come in various sizes so you can select one, two or three meats and an equal number of sides. The baby back rib plate included a generous portion of meat, succulent ribs, sweet fat lying in wait under the kick of spicy sauce. They’re great with sweet beans dotted with chewy bits of bacon or with creamy red-potato potato salad, house-made as are all the sides, including mac ‘n’ cheese, cole slaw and ranch beans.
Other meats, all slow-cooked over oak or mesquite, include all those available in sandwiches as well as occasional specials such as “pulled pork” (in no way vinegary-authentic, for you homesick North Carolinians, but a tasty, tender barbecued pork nevertheless).
For desserts, there are indefensible deep-fried Twinkies, and a respectable crumble (called cobbler on the menu), which comes in its own cake pan in a serving sized for two to four people. The apple-blueberry version is fresh and fruity, not spiced or fancied up. It’s a plain, honest dessert to enjoy (if you take it home) with a plain, honest cup of coffee (save your flavored brews for another time) or (if you eat it on premises) with a glass of straight-ahead iced tea. And like so many other dishes on Swinging Door’s menu, it’s good every time.
Location: 11018 Vanowen St., North Hollywood, (818) 763-8996; www.swingingdoorbbq.com.
Price: Sandwiches, $6.50 to $7; Combo plates $8.50 to $20; sampler basket of five meats, $8.50; apple or peach and berry cobbler for two to four, $5.
Best dishes: Baby back ribs, chopped tri-tip sandwich, sandwiches.
Details: Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sunday. Lot and street parking, all major credit cards.